Tales of children with autism spectrum disorders who wander off, or “elope,” as it is known in the field, have been largely anecdotal. Now research just published in the journal Pediatrics shows that half of kids with ASD do roam, putting themselves in danger with sometimes tragic results.It’s a cautionary tale, the researchers say.

The researchers from the Interactive Autism Network and the Kennedy Krieger Institute surveyed 1,367 families with children between the ages of 4 and 17 who have ASD. They found that 49 percent of families said the child had attempted to elope once or more after age 4. The behavior usually wanes after age 11.

Of those 598 children, 316 had wandered off long enough to create real worry. The study included 1,218 children with ASD and 1,076 of their siblings who do not have autism. The siblings had “significantly lower rates of elopement across all ages compared with children with ASD,” the study said.

The more severe the autism, the more likely a child eloped, most commonly from home, the store or school. In most cases, parents reported the child was heading somewhere or planning to do something specific, rather than just being confused or lost.

“Close calls with calamities like traffic injury or drowning are frequent, with police called in more than a third of cases,” a statement accompanying the study said.

“There’s reason to believe that this is a leading cause of death in children with autism and possibly the leading cause of death,” senior study author and Interactive Autism Network director Dr. Paul Law told HealthDay News’ Maureen Salamon. “Still, that’s in some ways the tip of the iceberg, because most families are able to keep their children safe but have to modify their entire lives to do so. Families are often blamed for this and they’re certainly not deserving of that because this is a very difficult problem.”

“Certain children, such as those who are fascinated by water, can be at higher risk for wandering and may need special supervision at school. Tracking devices that are worn by the child are helpful and should be provided free of charge to families who need them,” Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, a science and advocacy group in New York City, told HealthDay.

When asked, 43 percent of parents said the issue had prevented family members from getting a good night’s sleep, 62 percent said concerns kept them from going to or enjoying activities and 56 percent said elopement was one of the most stressful behaviors they had to cope with as caregivers to a child with ASD.

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